Identity Construction of Semiotics Scholars

This thesis offers the insights of the under-researched area of semiotics scholars’ identity construction and examines this through focusing on their narratives, produced in a particular setting. I address this topic by using the research interviews and linguistic analysis of unfolding interactions. For this analysis, I use a toolkit that consists of different strands of narrative positioning theory (Bamberg, 1997; Wortham, 2000, Søreide, 2006 and Deppermann, 2015).


For this, I draw on an oral corpus composed of forty research interviews with respondents from twelve countries (Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico and the US) in three languages: English, French and Spanish. This study explores locally co-constructed narratives in order to explain how the respondents take up multiple acts of positioning and negotiating different aspects of their identity with me as the interviewer.

The findings reveal that, the respondents do not feature a single identity, but they rather represent themselves by choosing within an inventory of identity affordances that either intersects or contradicts according to the moment of the interaction. At some moments, and in a more coherent way, they coalesce around a particular subject position or around macro-discursive contexts in order to enact stronger identity claims.

In addition to the above arguments, oriented to different issues in their national contexts, as well as to a prevailing discourse that intends to convey their own subjective experience of dwelling in this field.

The study thus helps our understanding on how semiotic practitioners interact and negotiate their positions in a not-so-well organised field, as well as the ways in which they construct different types of identities.


I examine co-constructed narratives amongst forty semiotics scholars in the particular setting of a research interview. I investigate the construction of different affordances of identification, as they negotiate some practices of the field through their talk. In the rest of the chapter, I advance the rationale for conducting this study with semiotics scholars’ identity. I then discuss my methodological and theoretical approach. From this, I turn to my research questions and the way my findings contribute to knowledge, before closing with an outline of the structure of the thesis

Rationale for this study

My main motivation to conduct this study lies in a combination of interests in regard to the current status of the field of semiotics in society and academic environments as a marginal field. As a field of knowledge (Posner, 2003), semiotics is relevant to all the aspects of human life, as the domain, which seeks for the production and circulation of meaning. Nonetheless, semiotics is not an established field in most of the academic systems, and it lacks full recognition in the disciplinary market’ as Rastier (2001) pointed out. The local situation of semiotics in every country is contingent upon two facts: firstly, the mainstream academic cultures it is embedded in. Secondly, it is constrained by higher education institutions, or research councils in countries such as France, Italy or Denmark. Moreover, lack of organisation and institutional recognition have direct impact on those who construct and maintain this field: semiotics scholars, or semioticians.

On the individual level, semiotics practitioners have to learn to dissociate their identities as the researchers and to negotiate them according to the discipline, they are attached to. In this thesis, I understand a discipline as an organised form of knowledge, which has been institutionalised in university faculties as well as in scholarly associations (Weingart, 2010: 10). On one hand, no single researcher is a semiotician from the very beginning. They become semioticians in the course of diverse encounters with the people and authors, by developing membership feelings within the field. Those feelings are constructed by the means of time and language and discursively enacted. Such developments prompt people to make choices in the sense of deciding to do research in this field and to stand up for it. These decisions provoke different dilemmas in the life of each scholar, which can be framed in terms of belonging and remaining in one or more discipline (for instance, linguistics or philosophy), struggles to fit in the own’s home field (psychology or media), or being trapped in liminal positions between two fields (as in the case of cognitive science and semiotics).

As Greco (2014) pointed out about the negotiation of linguists’ identification: ‘a syntactician does not need to justify his work as being ‘linguistic’ enough. A syntactician is de facto a linguist (Greco, 2014: 20). Conversely, not only do the semioticians need to justify and negotiate the pertinence of their research, according to the field they are institutionally attached to, but they are also obliged to show and confirm their right of exist in the field of semiotics by producing outstanding research and negotiating their positions with their home institutions. This is why, I decided to enquire about the quandaries practitioners face when working in this field.

On the local level, this takes through an interplay between multiple identification mechanisms – conveyed through narratives and categories of self-representation that enact flexible and even, contradictory, identities as linguists, researchers or people shifting from one discipline to another, and external mechanisms that constrain the practice of semiotics, prompting practitioners to cross different academic spaces in order to get recognition and secure their positions in academia.

Very little is currently known about semioticians’ identification mechanisms and how the absence of institutional recognition affects their lives as academics. Yet little research has been undertaken to investigate these issues (Darras, 2012; Biglari, 2014). This study intends to illustrate how the respondent’s answers contribute to have a clearer idea of the field of semiotics, since it considers the ways in which the individuals live and produce representations of the field. On the other hand, this thesis is also about how discourses and practices, outside individuals, interact (or separate) within a community. Hence, on the group level, it aims at providing a current state of semiotics, according to the responses provided by a population of forty scholars who tell how they interact and (de)construct identification in the field.

In inquiring the dilemmas semiotics practitioners face when working in this field, my research interests and my own life intersect. I discovered semiotics as an undergraduate linguistics student back in my home country. This took me to delve into the broad field of semiotics and to realise how it works as a sensibility to make sense of the surrounding reality. Further events led me to undertake a semiotics master’s programme in the place, which has probably achieved the most suitable organisation of semiotics in the world: Estonia. Living in a radically different environment and interacting with established semiotics scholars helped me to realise my wish to enter this community of practitioners. This is why, I chose to write the papers on semiotics-oriented topics, to participate in semiotics conferences and to observe how these scholars work and interact when gathered.

The link between my readings and investigations about the field and its figures, as well as the encounters with some researchers, were insightful insofar, as I became aware of the potentialities of semiotics as a trans-disciplinary field to approach manifold aspects of culture. The multiple interactions, I have had with the field and its practitioners led me to see the other side of the coin: even though semiotics is rich in approaches, traditions and its fertility when explicating meaning-generation processes, it is not well-established and it further lacks recognition in academic environments. Thus, I decided to its practitioners, who are the ones to construct the field and keep it alive.

The title of this thesis, rather than making reference to Shakespearean ‘glassy essence’, intends to draw an intertextual link between Charles Sanders Peirce’s 1892 essay entitled Man’s glassy essence and Singer’s 1984 homonymous book on semiotic anthropology. I interpret the titles of these texts as putting to the fore the question of identification. The conceptions of the semiotic self are multiple, yet the reflection on the ‘semiotician self’ is seldom seen, if not inexistent. The second part of the name refers to a collective vision and appraisal, and the ways in which a group of researchers conceives of the discipline they practice; how in fact it is being experienced, talked and represented.

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Methodological and theoretical approach

In order to address the research gap outlined above, I conducted a study with forty respondents from 12 countries (Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico and the US). Thus, I draw on a dataset composed of an oral corpus of research interviews in three languages (English, French and Spanish). As such, these languages also point to the existence of different traditions in semiotics –mostly to Saussurean and Peircean orientations.

The choice of methods corresponds with the in-depth type of data, that I wanted to obtain and, with foreknowledge of the research topic through my review of the literature and my personal experience in semiotics. In this thesis, I pursue a discursive approach to interviews as conceived by Richards and Talmy, i.e. a speech event in which both participants produce meaning, co-construct knowledge and participate together in social practices (Richards & Talmy, 2010). Besides that, these events are interactional rather than artificial encounters (De Fina, 2009). Hence, these research interviews are regarded as a performance of the self with and for the interviewer.

Across the interviews, a variety of identity dilemmas arose, when I invited the respondents to elaborate on multiple topics, which include their academic practice, the interaction with peers or their own particular representation of semiotics as a field. When evoking these issues, the participants performed different facets of identity in discourse, including the choice of certain terms, pronouns or categories over others, as well as the enactment of different, and sometimes contradictory, subject positions that ranged between success, marginalisation and distancing. At certain moments, however, they consistently aligned to either a particular subject position, or to macro-social frames, and constructed stronger, more ‘durable’ (Bamberg, 2010) identity claims.

The interviews were thus the setting that afforded a great deal of identity work. In these interactions, the participants are engaged with the narrative mode (Bruner, 1991) as well as the telling of argumentative stories. When doing so, they reflected and discursively enacted their actions in the storyworld as characters, as well as from the perspective of the here-and-now of the interaction. Consequently, they made sense of different social situations, and were able to elaborate on the presentation of themselves and others (Bamberg & McCabe, 1998; Bamberg, 2004). The narratives resulting from the interviews are considered as outcomes of self-reflexive processes that shed light on new insights and levels of sense-making about respondents’ practices and lives (Lucius-Hoene & Depperman, 2000).

My theoretical approach to this thesis departs from a broader perspective in the domain of identities-in-interaction. Concretely, in the way in which the identity is constituted in linguistic interaction. The framework that I draw upon in this thesis is positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 2001; Harré et al. 2009), as applied to narratives in interaction which offers insights into how people could engage in explicit or driven self positioning in interactions. Positioning theory has diversified and refined its concepts in order to overcome multiple gaps in its theoretical tenets. In this manner, Davies and Harré’s abstract treatment of the notion of positioning has been addressed by Deppermann (2015). This author has provided a more comprehensive definition of positions as ascriptions which are semiotically structured, linked to social action and accomplished by social practice. In addition to this, they can be locally situated and convey a multiplicity of identities.

In line with Bamberg (1997), the thesis pays special attention to locally co-constructed narratives in order to explain how semiotics practitioners take up multiple acts of positioning (Søreide, 2006) vis-à-vis themselves as researchers and a vis-à-vis a collective other. Additionally, this perspective also addresses the navigation between respondents’ local identity claims (Bamberg, De Fina & Schiffrin, 2011; Depperman, 2015) and larger macro contexts to formulate and construct concrete types of identification (De Fina, 2013).

In their narratives, the respondents mobilised a variety of explicit and indexical (Silverstein, 2003) linguistic markers that help to negotiate different aspects of their identification. This diversity includes categorisation (Schegloff, 2007a), reported speech (Rosier, 1999), or modality markers (Johansson & Suomela-Salmi, 2011). Lastly, the principle of relationality was also articulated as an additional resource to (de)construct membership from the larger group of semioticians (Bucholtz and Hall, 2005).

Research questions and contribution

In this thesis, I address three inter-related research questions. Together these examine how and in what ways the particular interaction of a research, afford and constrain different possibilities of identification as a member of the community of semiotics for my participants.

My research questions were recalibrated during the course of this research, including through the early data analysis. My research questions are as follows:

How do semiotics scholars identify themselves and are identified by others through narratives and representations in research interviews?

In what extent do narratives in interaction mobilise positioning to enable the construction and negotiation of identification of participants and amongst participants?

In what extent do the concerns made relevant in the interviews could account for the individual status of semiotics in each respondent’s context?

In addressing these questions, my thesis contributes to both the studies of identities-in-interaction, and to the field of general semiotics. In terms of its contribution to the studies of identities in interaction, my thesis adds to the literature relating to the positioning theory but extends this literature to apply and combine different perspectives of this approach. My thesis brings together and establishes a synergy between different strands of positioning (mainly those of Bamberg, 1997; Søreide, 2006; Wortham (2000; 2001) and Deppermann (2015). From a methodological perspective, my thesis adds to the body of literature adopting a discursive approach, applying this to the study of co-constructed identities in a research interview.

On the other hand, this thesis adds to field of general semiotics by providing a reflexive account of the field, through the told personal experiences and identity constructions of its practitioners. As such, this thesis adds to the literature insofar as it investigates how a group of semiotics scholars do identity work, considering them its main research object in order to determine their identity dilemmas vis-à-vis the multiple problems emerged when they felt that the recognition of the field was at risk.

Organisation of the thesis

Following this introduction, Chapter 2 offers a review of the literature. In the first part of the chapter, I discuss the epistemological background of semiotics. I start by showing how the semiotics was organised around two fundamental discourses (Foucault, 1969) in the twentieth century: Saussure’s semiological approach, mainly followed by structuralist and poststructuralist researchers and Pierce’s pragmatist approach, which was adopted by semiotics researchers. Afterwards, I present the epistemological shifts that diversified semiotics’ research objects – from text as the main analytical unit to visual production, then to the study of culture as a sign system, multimodality and multimediality, and further approaches that include cognitive semiotics, sociosemiotics or the semiotic approach to nature. Then, I turn to my research object: semioticians’ identifications. In the second part, I will discuss developments in identity theory that are relevant for my research from a discursive perspective. In this part I also incorporate the discussion of academic identities since this type of identity will also be approached in the thesis. In the third part, I review literature on narrative research, and I try to expose my argument for the use of narrative in this thesis. I present the main types of narratives to be used in the study and introduce the main theoretical approaches of positioning theory. Lastly, I introduce the core linguistic resources, whereby identify is negotiated and constructed in narratives in interaction.

The first part of Chapter 3, Methodology, provides an account of literature on research interviews and gives an outline of the type of interview I used in this thesis: a semi-structured research interview. The second part outlines the background for the respondents in terms of institutional positions, countries of work as well as their scientific orientations. Thirdly, the setting of the interviews is discussed, and I made a case for the discussion of the ethical considerations that were addressed in this study with regard to informed consent, anonymisation of participants and confidentiality.

Lastly, I present the type of questions posed to respondents and the aims they had to elicit acts of positioning. I also accounted for the transcription system I used.

Chapter 4 is divided into four parts. In part one I outline the analytical approach and provide the means to addressing the data in three stages of examination. In addition, I show the type of stories analysed and their structural characteristics. In the second part of this chapter, I account for the linguistic resources utilised to mobilise positioning and present the case to use positioning as a methodological tool. In the third part, I discuss the ways, whereby the respondents constructed sameness in the group of semioticians as well as in other groups, how some respondents disengaged from the community of semioticians by displaying how they want to be known. In the fourth part, I discuss three identity struggles, reported by the interviewees, in which they felt their identity was in jeopardy: 1) meeting additional audiences, 2) getting recognition of the field of semiotics by national academic systems, and 3) grappling with issues of interdisciplinarity.

Chapter 5 provides the analysis of three cases studies of representative respondents. I present how each respondent, based on their own personal stories, showed a more coherent process of identity work when aligning with a particular subject position. In doing so, they construct three identity affordances, which include: disengagement from the community of semioticians, a twofold construction between marginality and acceptance, and full membership in semiotics by evoking a social identity (De Fina, 2011).

Chapter 6, summarises and discusses the findings and relates them back to the literature, reviewed in Chapter 2.

Chapter 7 outlines the conclusions of the thesis, summarises the overall insights and formulates explicit answers to one of the research questions. I close the thesis by highlighting the limitations and indicating areas for further research.

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